Dr. Robert C. Morgan on E.T.

 

1996

The Open Gesture

The painter Eugenio Torrens has evolved from a cultural tradition in painting that is both rich and diverse. Sharing a lineage from Spain and Portugal, Torrens has spent much of his formative career living amid the inspired surroundings of Barcelona and Lisbon. This cultural combination – The Iberian experience – has been an important force in Torrens’s visual growth and development. It is the background of his painterly sensibility.

I would say that mixtures of related, yet diverse cultural sensibilities contributes to a visual attitude – a painterly approach – that might best be understood in terms of the mark or the gesture. Because it is the gestural sweep of the artist’s hand – which is intrinsically related to the synaptical charge of the mind – that allows the spontaneity and the passion of the mind to emerge, to become visible.

When I refer to the paintings of Eugenio Torrens as being about “the open gesture”, I mean to suggest that the spontaneity and intuitive clarity in his manner of work become the overriding issue in how the content of the work is communicated. Critics in Spain and Portugal have written comments and critiques that suggest some mystical feeling in relation to these marks and gestures. As an American critic I am more inclined to characterize Torrens’ painterly approach as expressing a clarity of complex feeling. Given that Torrens is coming from an Iberian mixture of cultural traits that suggest spirituality and passion as signifying elements, I would prefer to place the emphasis on the precision and constraint by which the artist arrives at a metaphorical understanding of his own inner-reality through painting.

When I speak of “the open gesture” in Torrens’ work I am not suggesting that this approach to painting is free of constraints. Quite the opposite. Torrens has a clear and definite attitude about pictorial space. This allows him a certain confidence to proceed with the gesture, to give the gesture of his hand and body movement a spatial context, a pictorial presence, that – in the best work – reaches new heights of expression.

For the gesture to be open, Torrens must consciously liberate himself from academic notions about the picture plane. He cannot afford to worry about the crafted surface or the careful attention to composition or precision tonal modulations. Yet, at the same time, the artist cannot be ignorant of these formal principles. Torrens has had to sublimate these principles in order to liberate himself in the act of painting.

A very clear example of what I mean can be illustrated in Torrens’ series of prints called “Manugraphs” printed in Lisbon in 1992. The term was invented by the artist as a way of clarifying his aesthetic process. “Manugraph” is a lamination of two words – “manual” as in hand-made, and “monographs” as in singular original prints. Torrens decided that instead of making a single impression on stone, wood or a metal plate, to be printed repetitively in an edition of, say, fifty examples, he does one painting on wood which then becomes a prototype for him to re-do on paper fifty times.

In other words, the artist selects what he feels to be best example from the group and gives it the inscription of number one. The other forty-nine are numbered sequentially according to Torrens’ personal criterion, his own qualitative standard. In this way, the artist accepts the role of self-criticism as a liberal act, a methodological process, that is intrinsic to the work.

Torrens’ internalization of criticism within the artist process is a literal extension of the late critic Clement Greenber’s notion of “self-criticism”. For Greenberg, the application of “self-criticism” is one of the hallmarks of Modernism – an attitude that distinguishes the Modernist artist from one in the Renaissance. In his famous essay on “Modernist Painting” Greenberg states:

“The self-criticism of Modernism grows out of but is not the same thing as the criticism of the Enlightenment criticized from the outside, the way criticism in its more accepted sense does: Modernism criticizes from the inside, through the procedures themselves of that witch is being criticized”

Torrens is interested in picking the best of the “Manugraphs”. He is interested in the process of pursuing an image until it gets better. Of course, the initial image-prototype is always made spontaneously. Once he has painted it in wood, he tries to reproduce the same image again. He tries to achieve a similar feeling of spontaneity as it existed with the painting of the first image. So he repeats it over and over again, using the same gestural force. One cannot help but see a certain irony on the stereotype given to artists. Yet one may also consider Torrens as relating closely to the Zen calligraphers in Japan who work repeatedly to achieve a range of distinct expressive connotations to the same word-picture.

Greenberg further asserts that the “self-criticism of Modernist art has never been carried on in any but a spontaneous and subliminal way”. This is to say that the criterion the painter uses to determine which is the best or most successful work – or, for that matter, which attributes of a single work function more coherently than others – is strictly subjective. According to Greenberg, it takes practice to achieve this manner of looking.

When I speak to Torrens engaged with the open gesture, it is a matter of sublimating what he knows from the inside and channeling it through a discerning eye. In essence, he is releasing an interior sensibility and giving it an outward manifestation. To make an open gesture – indeed to give the gesture a material life – as Torrens is capable of doing requires – considerable discipline and focus of concentration. It is not at al haphazard. Thus, when Eugenio Torrens is involved in the process of juxtaposing forms and colors or when he is making a selection from his “Manugraphs” or when he is deciding whether to work on wood or paper, he is not resorting to an academic formula or an externally-derived aesthetic theory. Rather he is focusing his intuition so as to channel the feeling of spontaneity into his decision-making process. There is no external theory that can make this process happen. This recalls Barnett Newman’s humorous statement – and I paraphrase – aesthetics is to art what ornithology is to the birds.

Eugenio Torrens is a preeminently an artist. He is a painter who has internalized his aesthic position. He does not need to describe it. Art is not something that is proven in the way one might deal with experimental research in the social sciences. One of the most misleading aspects of the advanced art of the late eighties and nineties is that it needs verbal or linguistic justification, that somehow the artist should be able to defend in words what he or she does. To articulate one’s intentions fully is to miss the point as to why one chooses to make art in the first place. Certain forms of Conceptual Art require language as the medium, but even this has been misunderstood. The Best Conceptual Art has tended to embed language in its structure rather than looking for some external theoretical justification.

There are two sources worth citing in this regard; one, an artist, Marcel Duchamp; the other, an aesthetician, Benetto Croce. Duchamp in his famous address made before the American Federation of Arts conference in Houston (1957) stated that the moment a work of art is apprehended by the spectator there is a relationship between “the unexpressed but intended and the unintentionally expressed”. This is to say that not all intentions are made perfectly clear in terms of the expression that is felt in a work of art. Sometimes the spectator will discover something in the work that the artist did not intend, and that discovery may be quite valid. One can always account for the intuitions of the artist. The unconscious “expression” in a work of art is responsible as that which is intended by the conscious mind.

To pursue this argument one step further, I turn to the Aesthetic by the turn of the century Neapolitan philosopher Benetto Croce. In presenting his case for intuition as having a distinct function for that of intellectualism, he makes the following observation:

“Intuitive activity possesses intuitions to the extend that it expresses them. Should this proposition sound paradoxical, that is partly because, as a general rule, a too restricted meaning is given to the word “expression”. It is generally restricted to what are called verbal expressions alone. But there exist also non-verbal expressions, such as those of line, color, and sound, and to all of these must be extended our affirmation…”

Torrens is an intuitive painter in the sense that this subject matter is the open gesture. For the most part, any premeditation is immediately circumscribed by the artist’s tactile involvement with the materials. If he is working with acrylics on wood, as he most often does, the image evolves as a result of this intuition. It is the openness to his intuitions that make way for the expressive moment.

I hesitate to call Torrens an expressionist any more than I would apply this term to other twentieth century painters of the Iberian Peninsula. I suppose that in the most general sense he is an expressionist. He uses a fluid paint, most often on a hard wooden surface, in order to communicate feeling, to deliver a heightened emotional power. His painterly actions are performed by means of both a highly charged, yet contemplative gestural manipulation. In a recent statement for an exhibition in the United States, the term Torrentialism was used to describe the artist’s approach to painting – obviously a play on the artist’s name, but also in the visual effect that he aspires to achieve in his work. In contrast to the “all-over” technique employed by the Abstract Expressionists of the fifties, Torrens deals with a different concept of spatiality. As other critics have shown, he will often use “bars” of paint; one is also likely to find circles, ovals, biomorphic, and botanical shapes.

There is a kind of spatial irregularity in Torrens paintings. As in Tantric art, the focus of the picture is pushed away from the center. The use of an irregular surface space gives Torrens a vehicle by which to deliver expressive content. The fact that the painting is done on the floor is not insignificant to the outcome. By maneuvering the painting against the hard surface, the artist is able to apply a greater force. The impact of the brush or the knife on wood creates effects that canvas would not give. The paintings of Torrens have a certain Classical elegance. It’s conceivable that the Classical form may be due to the vertical format on which he works. In the early nineties when Torrens was living and working in his home outside of Lisbon, the format of his paintings consisted of two sheets of plywood placed vertically on atop the other. Since moving to the United States, the vertical rectangle has became slightly altered in its dimensions, less elongated than before.

There is no predictable tendency as to how the artist proceeds in marking or dividing the space, but clearly the extended rectangle – most often seen in a vertical format – is a determining factor in what kinds of shapes evolve. Occasionally, Torrens will turn the rectangle horizontally. Whether he is working vertically or horizontally the rectangle is always  of equal dimensions. The question might be posed to whether the relationship between the vertical format eliciting a Classical feeling has a different effect when the format is turned horizontal. Does this mean that the vertical format is to Classicism, as in the Doric column, what the horizontal is to Romanticism, as in the representation of the landscape? The solution is too predictable. The equivalence is too literal – in spite of the formulaic notions of theosophy in the work of Mondrian.

Even so, one might say with some critical reservation that Classicism prevails in Torrens’ work, but only on a structural level. He employs a Romantic means – a Kinaesthesia of mind and body – in order to achieve his results. Regardless of this or any other aesthetic analysis, the artist has a legitimate right to Torrentialism; and why not? Did not Courbet renounce the category of Naturalism in favor of “Courbetism”? Humor and self-parody are necessary ingredients for the survival of any truly talented artist, regardless of what moment in history. They are qualities that constitute a manner of intuition that are ultimately more significant than the intellectual process. Benedetto Croce would have probably concurred; but at the same time he would have acknowledged that the intuitive and the intellectual are not mutually exclusive. Rather they are distinct operations within the creative process.

Few of Torrens’ paintings from 1995 have titles. This is curious. Kandinsky had a similar notion. Titles were unimportant for him. Kandinsky employed a numbering system instead. Klee held the opposite notion. For him, titles were a lead-in, a way of entering into an abstract puzzle. Torrens holds neither position. One might say that he is ambivalent as to whether or not painting has a title. They are convenient for critics and for art historian in terms of identifying a particular work for discussion or to illustrate a specific point.

Still Torrens has used titles where they seem to matter and where the image holds a particular dialectical signification to a memory or a thought or a mood. For example, there is a painting (vertical) called Philadelphia Flower (1995) in which an elongated white space descends against a brownish-red field. At the top of this phallic-looking shape is a red and black swirl of color. It could be a rose. Whether it is what the artist intended is not the point. It might fall into Duchamps’s category of the “unintentionally expressed”. Yet there seems to be an equivalent, more in relation to a mood than a actual image.

A related painting, called White Time (1995), uses the exact same colors. The format is also vertical, but instead of the elongated shape, there is a white circle that is painted more or less in the center of the painting. The circle is surrounded by black spindly shapes, resembling a microscopic view of a sperm cell. The two paintings, Philadelphia Flower and White Time, are related. The elongated image from the former painting and the white disc from the latter suggest the symbolism of the moon and its reflection in the water used in his fin de siècle paintings of the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch. The association between Torrens’ two paintings appears more intuitive and less consciously thematic.

The use of pairs in the work of Torrens – That is, two paintings that appear to have some semiotic connection to one another – does not seem incidental. I use the word “semiotic” here to distinguish what Torrens is doing from a Symbolist like Munch. There is more conjecture in Torrens’ imagery given the impulse toward the gesture, and therefore one must regard his work on a more speculative basis. It is not possible to make a one to one correspondence. There are, perhaps, some exceptions – particularly in his graphic work, such as the extraordinary sensual series of reductive images entitled Amor Sud (1992). Here the one-to-one correspondence is more direct: but the paintings from this period tend toward speculative meaning. One gets the torrential brush, to be speak – but the equivalence of the image in the symbolic sense is not the same.

There is another pair from the same period, painted in the United States with the titles, Medieval She and Medieval He. While they may appear crudely manneristic in terms of gender representation, there is a wonderful feeling of irony in these works. The hollow organic shape representing the female is juxtaposed by a kind defensive totem representing the male. The colors – red, brown and blue – are related to those used in other paintings. They are painted with acrylic on wood, consistent with the method he adopted in Portugal. However, major difference between the two pairs is the scale. Philadelphia Flower and White Time measure 8 feet high x 3 feet wide, while Medieval She and Medieval He measure 5 feet high x 2 feet wide. These are two different scale formats that Torrens has employed in his recent American paintings. Most of the works in this series are untitled – works with flowing serpentine lines, glowing reds and pristine whites, spindly black lines, and calligraphic gestures, organic unicellular shapes and repetitive modular strokes built up and overlaid upon one another. The sheer volume of Torrens’ production is remarkable; but what is even more remarkable is the sense of diversity in the expressive moods.

There is an untitled painting of an ovum – an egg-shape drawn with a calligraphic line. The shape is more or less enclosed. In reference to Zen painting, the circular enso is never completely enclosed. This suggests a Kinetic circle, a space in motion, or spec-time, a relative proximity between matter and spirit, a sign of open contemplation. In one painting the ovum is held within a divided space at the top. In another related painting, the ovum has the appearance of having descended from the top to the bottom- Again, the shape has been drawn in a calligraphic manner, the fertile sign of this semiotic pair is poignant and still. The silence and sense of interior space within the dominant vertical dimension communicate a subtle grace and stark plentitude, a reasoned approach toward being in the world of nature, yet attuned to the spontaneous urges and nuances that encompass nature. The message of these paintings is a purposeful content in the dual sense of the meaning. To be content, yet also to be fraught with meaning. This again is close to a Zen concept of being – that which is most empty is also most full.

Of the newer work, the horizontal paintings are fewer than the vertical. There are two with titles. One is called Castles on the Sand; the other is Wavelength. Both paintings reflect the end of the landscape or the beach. Although the sienna, gray, and light umber tones are pervasive, they are quite different from one another in terms of shape and pictorial structure. Castles on the Sand reflects a kind of primary geometry. Five cubic modules are positioned near the top with the lower half of the painting in a thin gray wash. Wavelength is a more organic landscape with the gray wash taking an oblong, phallic shape that resets against a burnt sienna ground.

My reading of these landscapes suggests that they are reflections of Romantic mood. They represent two sides of consciousness, a kind of metaphysical proposal about life, the instability of finding oneself in the material world. They reflect a mood of coming to terms with the basic human and spiritual needs – often in conflict with one another. They express a hunger, a continuum of worldly desire, and a repentance.

There is something pivotal about these works. Their format is horizontal, and therefore the mood is less aggressive. Yet stillness can be deceiving. A potential mystery – a force rumbling at the earth’s core – lurks beneath the abstract shapes. These paintings are perhaps closer to the Symbolist mood in that they carry a certain aggressive retreat and longing: they are painting of a new fin de siècle, the end of the millennium, in which consciousness becomes the source of human reflectivity. The observation of nature assumes a new importance, a Jungian archetype of interior sensibility on a projected scale.

What distinguishes the general mood of Torrens’ paintings from the American Color Field painters is the projection of a mood and the effort to retain a sense of refinement within that mood; the semiotic and symbolic speculations are not part of Greenbergian Modernist. Torrens’ formal subject matter – his clear shapes, thinly washed colors, calligraphic elements, and gestural play on the surface – are all ingredients that hold metaphorical potential. They are not given to a distanced composition or to a formalism that holds these elements in suspension. They imply more than a formalism that holds these elements in suspension. They imply more than simply an orientation toward process.

The influences in Torrens’ work are coming from a tradition drenched in the Iberian sunlight. It is a Southern European orientation toward painting full of passion and subtle intrigues. The landscape is inescapable. The force of nature as a determining factor in his choice of color and form is an omnipresent reality. No matter how technocratic or informational the world appears, the influence of nature is never exempt from Torrens’ art The Iberian experience – the graceful, yet penetrating insights of the Portuguese combined with the metaphysical urgency of Catalonia – inhabits the paintings of Eugenio Torrens.

It is worth mentioning that in addition to his long-term and persistent career as a painter, the artist worked in other areas of the applied arts, including film-making – in London – and graphic and book design. To work in adjacent areas of the visual expertise gives a certain credibility to the artist – the implication being that he has made a clear decision to pursue the difficult path of abstract art at the end of the twentieth century. Torresn’ concept of abstract painting – although it leans on certain formalist tendencies – is not formalist. It projects other “literary” or allegorical meanings.

To further establish this point, Torrens comes from a tradition of Modernism that includes Miró, Tàpies and Sicilia. The term formalism is simply inappropriate to this tradition. The metaphysical projection of the world, the Nietzschean yea-saying epithets, are rampant within the crust of their pigment. The kind of surface found among the great  Iberian painters is a tactile not a virtual surface. One feels the surface in a special way; it is less conceptual in the pragmatic sense, and more given to a spiritual equivalence.

Thus, we can say that Torrens is involved in the reality of the physical surface, the tactile approach to the surface. This tactility is what instigates a reading that goes beyond the surface. It goes into the metaphysical stratosphere. One reads the surface of a painting like Shower (1995) as a torrential hum, a rush of emotion that is profoundly elevated in consciousness. Referring again to Croce, it is the approach of the intuitive mind that unleashes expressive content. This intuition is a sublimation of the intellect and – in the case of Torrens – a heightened form of expressionism. Painting subsumes itself as an existential act, a moment of reality that is beyond the mundane, a fragment of time that is caught in the glimmer of metaphysical light.

In his original study of the French Symbolist poet Rimbaud, the American writer Henry Miller suggests that the creative artist needs no other goal other than that of creation itself. This is an aesthetic view of the world. However, with the philosopher Kierkegaard, any aesthetic position carries with it an ethical choice. To live with one’s aesthetic position means that the artist also accepts the responsibility of its consequences. This requires a decision to pursue one’s creative insight to the limit – never wavering under political or commercial pressure; in essence, to discover for oneself a way to travel the course of art in life. What is impressive about Eugenio Torrens is the commitment by which he creates and then seeks to sustain the joy of creation.